Last Meal Ribs: The Best Barbecue Ribs You've Ever Tasted!
"Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly." Mae West
Summary. This is the recipe for making the best barbecue ribs you ever tasted. They are marinated in a dry rub, then smoked low and slow, the sauce is added near the end and sizzled on. Just like the champion pitmasters and the best ribjoints do it. Recipe Type. Entree. Tags. bbq, barbecue, ribs, smoking, grilling, bbq ribs.
Ribs are the holy grail. Mastering them marks the difference between the tyro, pyro, and pitmaster.
We're talking Southern ribs here, a style created by African slaves and as uniquely American as their other great contributions to our culture: Jazz and the blues.
The ribs that win championships are a melange of flavors: A complex spice rub, elegant hardwood smoke, tangy sweet sauce, all underpinned and held together by the distinct flavor of pork. They are juicy and tender and they tug cleanly off the bone but don't fall off the bone. Their scent clings to your fingers for hours. Click here for my complete definition of Amazing Ribs, what I look for when I judge barbecue competitions.
You can make it happen. With this recipe you will make ribs good enough to bring home a trophy in a cookoff. In fact, several readers have written to me that they have done exactly that with this recipe. There may be a few more steps in this process than you like, but it's not hard and we're talking restaurant grade meat here. Better. You don't need a special smoker, although it helps. You can cook killer ribs on most charcoal and gas grills once you understand the concepts.
Last Meal Ribs Recipe
This recipe needed a name when I first published it, and Doug and Trudy Calvin of Palm Springs, CA provided it. He wrote "I fixed ribs yesterday by following your recipe. My girlfriend made me promise that for her last meal on this planet I would fix the same ribs."
Yield. 2 adult servings
Preparation time. 15 minutes minimum. 10 minutes to skin 'n' trim, 5 minutes to rub, 1 to 2 hours dry brining is optional.
Cooking time. 3 hours minimum. We will be cooking low and slow at about 225°F, so allow 5 to 6 hours for St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs and 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs. Thicker, meatier slabs take longer, and if you use rib holders so they are crammed close to each other, add another hour. Country ribs are really not ribs, they are chops and should be cooked very differntly. Begin by learning how to set up your grill by reading my article on 2-zone or Indirect cooking. That means that one side is hot and the other is not. This is the single most important technique a pitmaster must learn. Then set up your grill for a meatless trial run so you can learn how to tweak the dials and vents to get it to 225°F. If you have a gas grill, use only one burner as described in my article setup for a gas grill. Put a disposable aluminum pan with water on top of the hot burner(s). Moisture and combustion gases in a propane grill combine to create a seductive, bacon-like flavor in the meat. If it has only one burner, put the water pan between the meat and the burner. If you have a Weber kettle, put about half a chimney of unlit coals in the grill and put about half a chimney of fully lit coals on top to get to 225°F. I recommend you use a water pan. All this is described in detail in my article on the best setup for a charcoal grill. If you have an offset firebox smoker, follow my instructions for an setting up an offset smoker. If you have a bullet smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain, read my article bullet smoker setup.
Total time. 3 to 4 hours for baby backs, 5 to 6 hours for spare ribs and St. Louis Cut ribs.
1 grill with a cover. You can use a dedicated smoker or any charcoal grill or gas grill as long as it has a cover. A tight fitting cover with adjustable vents like those on the Weber Kettle is best.
1 (18 pound) bag of charcoal for charcoal grills or smokers. You won't use all that charcoal, but because you will need more on cold, windy, or wet days than on sunny and warm days, have a full bag on hand. I prefer briquets (read my article on charcoal to see why). Absolutely do not use the instant igniting stuff that has solvent in it. Chimney starters (shown at right) are by far the best way to start charcoal, especially for long slow cooking where the smell of the solvent in charcoal starter fluid can ruin the taste of the meat. Read my article on how to start a charcoal fire.
1 tank of propane for gas cookers. You won't need it all, but, until you get the hang of this technique, don't risk running out by starting with a partial tank.
8 ounces by weight of hardwood chunks, chips, or pellets. It doesn't matter how many slabs you are cooking, 8 ounces should be enough. You don't have to be precise, just measure it in some fashion so you have a baseline for your next cook. Then you can add or subtract if you wish. I prefer chunks of apple, oak, or hickory for pork. Never use any kind of pine unless you want meat that tastes like turpentine. Never use construction lumber because it is often treated with poisonous chemicals to discourage rot and termites. You do not need to soak the wood because wood does not absorb much water. That's why they make boats with it. Click the link to read more about wood and the myth of soaking wood.
1 pair of long handled tongs
1 sauce brush, preferably one of those newfangled silicon jobs
1 good digital oven thermometer
1 six pack of beer (for the cook, not the meat)
1 slab of fresh St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs. That's 1/2 slab per adult. If you use baby back ribs, get a whole slab per adult. You'll probably have leftovers, but what's wrong with that? SLCs are the meatiest and most flavorful ribs. They are spareribs with the tips removed so they form a nice rectangular rack. You can use baby back ribs if you prefer. They are smaller and cook faster. Country ribs come from the shoulder and are not really ribs, so don't use them for this recipe. Get fresh, not frozen meat if possible. Fresh meat has the best pork flavor and the most moisture. Ever notice the pink liquid when you defrost meat? You can't get that back into the meat, so buy fresh meat whenever possible. Ask the butcher to remove the membrane on the back side.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons of Meathead's Memphis Dust (in May 2014 I removed the salt from this recipe so if you have some made up with salt, skip the next ingredient)
1/2 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat (and remember, ribs are only about 50% meat). So if your slab weight 3 pounds, use 3/4 teaspoons of salt, approximately.
1) Rinse. Rinse the ribs in cool water to remove any bone bits from the butchering and any bacterial film that grew in the package (don't worry, cooking will sterilize the meat). Pat dry with paper towels.
2) Skin 'n' trim. If the butcher has not removed the membrane from the back side, do it yourself. It gets leathery and hard to chew, it keeps fat in, and it keeps smoke and sauce out. Insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers, work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides. If you can't get the skin off, with a sharp knife, cut slashes through it every inch so some of the fat will render out during the cooking. Click here to see more photos of how to skin 'n' trim.
3) Salt. Salt is important. Even if you are watching your salt intake, a little salt really helps. It penetrates deep and amplifies flavor. It unwinds proteins and helps them retain moisture. And it helps with bark, the desired crust on the top formation. If you can, give the salt 1 to 2 hours to be absorbed. The process of salting in advance is called dry brining. The rule of thumb is 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat, but ribs are about 50% meat, so use about 1/4 teaspoon per pound. You can simply eyeball it by sprinking on the same amount of salt you would sprinkle on the ribs if they were served to you unsalted. And you don't need to do it the day before. Salt penetrates deep during cooking.
4) Rub. Then coat the meat with a thin layer of vegetable oil. The oil will help make the bark. Sprinkle enough Meathead's Memphis Dust to coat all surfaces but not so much that the meat doesn't show through. That is about 2 tablespoons per side depending on the size of the slab. Spread the Memphis Dust on the meat and rub it in. Some folks insist on putting the rub on the night before, but it isn't necessary.
5) Set up your cooker for 2-zone or indirect cooking.
6) Adjust the temp. Preheat your cooker to about 225°F and try to keep it there throughout the cook. This is crucial: You can absolutely positively noway nohow rely on bi-metal dial thermometers. Even if you spent a fortune on your grill they mount unreliable thermometers on them. If you are not monitoring your cooker with a good digital oven thermometer, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Using a dial thermometer is like trying to send email with a typewriter. Click here to read my buyer's guide to thermometers.
On a charcoal grill, adjust the air intake dampers at the bottom to control heat on charcoal grills. Intake dampers are more effective than exhaust dampers for controlling the temp because they reduce the supply of oxygen to the coals. Take your time getting the temp right. Cooking at 225°F will allow the meat to roast low and slow, liquefying the collagen in connective tissues and melting fats without getting the proteins knotted in a bunch. It's a magic temp that creates silky texture, adds moisture, and keeps the meat tender. If you can't hit 225°F, get as close as you can. Don't go under 200°F and try not to go over 250°F. Click here for more about how to calibrate your grill. To learn more about what happens inside the meat when it is cooking read my article on meat science. Read my article on the thermodynamics of cooking to learn how different grills cook differently.
7) Smoke. For charcoal or gas cookers, add 4 ounces of wood at this time. On a gas grill, put the wood as close to the flame as possible. On a charcoal grill, put it right on the hot coals. Resist the temptation to add more wood. Nothing will ruin a meal faster and waste money better than oversmoked meat. You can always add more the next time you cook, but you cannot take it away if you oversmoke.
8) Relax. Put the slabs in the cooker on the indirect side of the grill, meaty side up. Close the lid and go drink a beer, read a book, or make love.
9) More smoke. When the smoke dwindles after 20 to 30 minutes, add another 4 ounces of wood. That's it. Stop adding wood. If you have more than one slab on, halfway through the cook you will need to move the ribs closest to the fire away from the heat, and the slabs farthest from the flame in closer. Leave the meat side up. There is no need to flip the slabs. You can peek if you must, but don't leave the lid open for long.
10) The Texas Crutch. This trick involves wrapping the slab in foil with about an ounce of water for up to an hour to speed cooking and tenderize a bit. Almost all competition cooks use the crutch to get an edge. But the improvement is really slight and I never bother for backyard cooking. If you crutch too long you can turn the meat to mush and any time in foil can soften the bark and remove a lot of rub. I recommend it only for competition when the tiniest improvement can mean thousands of dollars. Skip it and you'll still have killer ribs. But if you've seen it on TV and must try it, click here to learn more about The Texas Crutch.
11) The bend test. Although I insist that you buy a good digital meat thermometer for grilling, this is one of the few meats on which you cannot use a thermometer because the bones have an impact on the meat temp and because the meat is so thin. Allow 5 to 6 hours for St. Louis Cut ribs and spare ribs, or 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs. The exact time will depend on how thick the slabs are and how steady you have kept the temp. If you use rib holders so they are crammed close to each other, add another hour. Then check to see if they are ready. I use the bend test (a.k.a. the bounce test). Pick up the slab with tongs and bounce it gently. If the surface cracks, it is ready.
12) Sauce. Now paint both sides with your favorite home made barbecue sauce or store-bought sauce and put it directly over the hottest part of the grill in order to caramelize and crisp the sauce. On a charcoal grill, just move the slab over the coals. On a gas grill, remove the water pan and crank up all the burners. On a water smoker, remove the water pan and move the meat close to the coals. On an offset smoker, put a grate over the coals in the firebox and put the meat there. With the lid open so you don't roast the meat from above, sizzle the sauce on one side and then the other. Stand by your grill and watch because sweet sauce can go from caramelized to carbonized in less than a minute! One coat of a thick sauce should be enough, but if you need two, go ahead, but no more! Don't hide all the fabulous flavors under too much sauce. If you think you'll want more sauce, put some in a bowl on the table.
If you've done all this right, you will notice that there is a thin pink layer beneath the surface of the meat. This does not mean it is undercooked! It is the highly prized smoke ring caused by the combustion gases and the smoke. It is a sign of Amazing Ribs. Now be ready to take a bow when the applause swells from the audience.
This page was revised 4/5/2014
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